Q. How did the North American headquarters of the Spanish bicycle company Orbea end up in Little Rock?
A: While there’s plenty of bicycling going on in Little Rock — fun fact: The Big Dam Bridge is the longest pedestrian and bicycle-only bridge in the U.S. that wasn’t converted from previous motor vehicle or railroad usage — it’s surely surprising to a lot of folks that the North American headquarters of a Spanish company that builds high-end racing bicycles that competitors in the Tour de France ride wound up here. Like a lot of transplants to Arkansas from far-flung places, though, there’s a pretty good story behind how the company found its way to the Natural State.
Based in Mallabia, Spain, Orbea started out making rifles in the 1830s, but — like a lot of arms manufacturers, including Remington and Winchester — started making bikes as a sideline business. These days, the shootin’ irons have fallen to the wayside, and cutting-edge, feather-light road bikes are Orbea’s bread and butter.
How the company got to Central Arkansas is this: While attending a trade show in Milan in 2000, Tony Karklins, a longtime employee and co-owner of Little Rock’s Chainwheel bicycle shop, walked into the booth for Orbea Bicycles. He was so impressed with the machines that he eventually brought the company to Arkansas, opening a sales office and distribution hub in Riverdale — the first Orbea sales and distribution point on the continent. Karklins moved Orbea USA to a former roofing supply company warehouse at 600 N. Broadway in North Little Rock in 2004. There, in addition to sales, employees took parts from the mother ship in Spain and assembled speedy two-wheelers for distribution all over the country.
Spreading out from Central Arkansas like so many bicycle spokes, the company has since become one of the best-selling European road bike brands in the U.S. Today, Orbea sells 200,000 bikes per year in 63 countries, and Karklins is now Orbea’s North American director of sales and marketing. The company announced in October 2013 that it would open a warehouse in Raleigh, N.C., to accommodate increased demand for their bikes on the East Coast. They’ve also established a western front, with another distribution center in Reno, Nev. In 2013, it was announced that Orbea USA would be wheeling back to Little Rock to a space at 119 Main St., with a 10,000-square-foot warehouse and a polished 4,000-square-foot shop to showcase their bicycles, racing jerseys, clothing and wetsuits for triathlon competitors.